Opinion columns should be concise, punchy, readable and preferably demolish conventional wisdom. Not easy to do. Sophy Buckley talks to op-ed specialist Leslie Crawford about how to approach writing one to maximise your chances of getting published
Opinion columns – op-eds – are the prime real estate within a newspaper. Worth a fortune in terms of their influence and ability to establish the author as knowledgeable and authoritative, it’s no wonder so many companies, politicians, campaigners and business folk want a piece of the op-ed action.
The Financial Times features team, which oversees the paper’s op-eds, receives dozens of pitches every day. With a maximum of perhaps three a day published, including those they commission themselves, competition is fierce and only the best make it.
“The op-eds are the intellectual heart of a paper. But sometimes when you get a proposal you do wonder if they’ve ever read one,” says Leslie Crawford, former deputy features editor at the FT. “They have a very different style to a feature or news story. They have to be approached quite differently.”
If you’re after one of these sought-after slots but have had trouble getting a proposal accepted, read on for top tips to maximise your chances of landing on the newspaper equivalent of Mayfair ahead of everyone else.
Bring something new to the table
Editors want different. They will not take something that has already been published or rehashes an old argument. Says Leslie: “Yes, op-eds are opinion. But they’re more than that. They should bring something new in terms of experience and viewpoint to the public debate. Preferably unexpected.”
This is actually easier than it sounds. Companies often have lots of experience that might not be in the public domain and as a result have salient, interesting points of view. As the writer, it’s your job to tap into that. If they don’t, it’s also your job to tell them not to bother. Unless it’s being published on their own website.
“A good op-ed author is a participant in the unfolding drama, not simply a pundit,” says Leslie. She points to Willie Walsh, then director general of the International Air Transport Association, having a pop at the high cost of Heathrow expansion plans in the pages of the FT as a favourite example.
Think like a comedian
Like comedy, op-ed timing is everything. No editor will take a piece without a good reason for running it now. And like a comedian, you need to know your audience.
“In this respect, it’s the same as a news story. If you’ve been asked to write an op-ed that’s yet to be accepted by the target outlet, ask yourself why anyone will read this, why they will read it there and why will they read it now,” says Leslie. “These points have got to be addressed really high up in the piece so if you’re not clear about them when you start thinking about it, the chances are it won’t get published.”
Generally speaking, the timing will be a newsworthy event – known as your “peg”.
You’ve got something original to say and the timing is right, but where do you start?
“Start with your peg. Then go through what’s at stake,” advises Leslie. “Follow that with the author’s preferred resolution and what’s needed to achieve this. This is the meat of the piece. Include a strong counter argument and rebut it with facts – not opinion – with referenced sources. People want to attribute weight to the argument and knowing where the stats come from allows them to do this.”
End, if possible, with a call to action. “If you’re writing for an import/exporter lambasting bureaucracy post-Brexit, end the piece with a clear call for all the form filling to end – ‘Less red tape was promised. Now let’s see it’,” says Leslie.
Running through the whole piece should be a guiding thread, to which all examples should be related. It helps give the piece authority, makes for an easy read and will give your piece a greater impact.
Forget the kitchen sink
All too often the pressure is on to pack in everything – including the proverbial kitchen sink. This never washes with the editors. Op-eds, as Leslie says, are the intellectual heart of a paper. Less is definitely more here and it’s your job to whittle it down to a clean, clear argument.
“Three strong arguments supporting your point and an unequivocal rebuttal of the strongest counter argument is all you need,” she says. And a modest tone generally comes across far better. If you do need to include a solution to the problem that you’re associated with, do it gently. “Editors don’t like op-ed writers who blow their own trumpet,” she adds.
If it’s not new, surprise
A pacifist calling for world peace will get nowhere. A pacifist setting out what governments need to weigh up in a set of circumstances stands more of a chance.
If the author can go further and set out the situation in bold terms that others have been skirting around, even better.
Christina Odone, former editor of the Catholic Herald and founder of the Parenting Circle, pulls this off in an op-ed for the Daily Telegraph on the link between Covid and truancy.
Concerned about a significant rise in truancy among school children, she sets out an argument that those skipping school tend to be the ones most in need of it. This isn’t surprising, but she’s being published in a paper known for promoting a very hands-off, small government stance. Her argument might not be a new concept, but to Telegraph readers it’s not one they will read often.
Mind your language
At the FT, readers range from school kids to presidents, taking in CEOs, students, Nobel prize-winners, ex-cons and retired policemen. So who to write for? The paper’s reporters are told to write for an intelligent 16-year-old. That translates into clear copy, without jargon and with the right level of context.
At Geek Weekly, on the other hand, readers will likely know the full history of the sector and be fluent in Geekese and its acronyms. But, cautions Leslie, you still have to pay attention to language.
“It’s easy to fall back on jargon and shortcuts. A good op-ed and good writing pushes through jargon to find layman’s ways to express the same thing. This makes it feel new to the reader. It won’t be the same language and terminology that everyone else is using so it will have a bigger impact. It’s more likely to make the reader sit up and take notice.” Which is the point of the op-ed.
In a similar vein, avoid lots of stats – readers zone out when faced with a barrage of raw data. If you do need to include them, try to make them relatable. For example, a 100,000m2 roof covered in solar panels equates to 13.8 Wembley football pitches.
This pre-invasion op-ed in the FT on the economic realities facing Putin is a great example. Economic consequences are set out and explained in layman’s terms. It makes a great read for anyone with or without an economic background.
If you’re ghosting an op-ed, in an ideal world you’ll get time talking to the named author.
“Start a general conversation around the topic. Warm them up a bit. You can get lots of information this way that will help you proceed. But make sure you ask why they want to write about this. Why it is bothering them. And why now,” says Leslie. “It all helps find the peg that will sell it to the editors and upon which a great argument will hang.”
If a conversation isn’t possible, get as detailed a brief as you can and push for more context if necessary. Sometimes the author is so close to the subject that they forget the vital kicker, assuming everyone is as up-to-the-minute as they are. And learn what you can about the author so you can mimic their tone and voice.
“It’s worth Googling them. Look up YouTube videos, speeches. A bit of sleuthing might be required,” suggests Leslie.
Goldilocks is your hero
Time is precious and readers have more options than ever before about where to get their information. Playing to this, more and more publishers are putting the estimated time it takes to read a piece right up with the headline, preparing the reader for how much they will need to invest.
Too short and you won’t cover the argument; too long and you lose the reader. Just right tends to be 800 to 1,000 words – about five minutes max to read. Having said that, short and to the point can work well. A few years ago, the New York Times ran the series “Room for Debate”, where two opposing thinkers were each given about 400 words to make their case. But this is the exception rather than the norm.
With so many words chasing so little space, following Leslie’s tips will help you create a good first draft, upping your chances of being published. But bear in mind the editors will probably want changes – punchier language, a clearer argument, more sources. If time is of the essence – because something’s really topical – follow our tips to bash out a top-notch essay plan covering your key points and submit it without delay. If it’s tasty, the editors will see the potential and help you refine it.